There’s no question in my mind that J R R Tolkien was a total genius: not merely a wonderful writer, but a creative force whose thinking about fantasy shaped the genre from the mid-twentieth century.
For those of us struggling to put stories together, that’s an inspiration – because he struggled too, as a glance at the ‘first drafts’ of his novels reveals. He had ideas: he tried one thing, tried another – constantly revised, and constantly improved. It worked. The only cost was in time: he took years to finish anything – which, for anybody writing commercially, isn’t usually possible. But setting that aside, he showed just what needed to be done in order to create books that became classics which speak to us across the years – and there are lessons in that for writers – everybody from those sweating away over National November Writing Month to fantasy writers to anybody wanting to write a great story. Here’s what he did in The Hobbit, for instance:
1. Writing style.
Tolkien got the style and tone right for his audience – kids (of any age). The Hobbit is designed to be read aloud, complete with narrator voice. This didn’t happen overnight. A glance through the ‘first drafts’ of the book reveals evolution. Like everything Tolkien did, The Hobbit was written iteratively.
The Hobbit is the classic Hero journey – since defined by Joseph Campbell and used by George Lucas in Star Wars. Before them there was Tolkien and The Hobbit. Bilbo is pushed out of ordinary life into ‘the magic world’ by a mentor (Gandalf). He has adventures that allow him to grow – the Troll encounter, the riddle game with Gollum, Beorn, and Mirkwood. When he reaches Erebor, he is ready to face the dragon. He returns to the ordinary world changed for the better.
3. Pace and tone.
Tolkien kept the book moving. At 240-odd pages it was the right length for his audience. His plot had a lightness of touch. Gandalf disappears to fight the Necromancer for character reasons; Tolkien has to strip Bilbo of his mentor so Bilbo can grow. Gandalf’s story did not need telling; it was a device, not an omission. The equivalent scene in Star Wars was the death of Obi Wan Kenobi.
4. Sense of wonder.
The Hobbit is filled with the magic of discovery. Part of it came from the way Tolkien founded The Hobbit in his emerging mythos of Middle Earth. Nothing like this had been seen in literature. Although it wasn’t fully developed in 1935-36, when he was writing The Hobbit, he had enough to give depth that other childrens’ stories of the day lacked.
If you want to learn more about writing and some cool techniques for turning those perfect ideas in your head into the written word, check out my short book How to get writing… fast. Available on Kindle.
Copyright © Matthew Wright 2016